back to the Black Table

We all know people like this. We see them at parties. We get forwarded emails from them. They're the ones who love to butt into any conversation with comments like, "You know I saw a program on PBS about that" or "The New York Times did a really fascinating


article that touched on this very same topic." And on occasion, we are that person ourselves; we read something that offers a unique perspective on modern life, and we instantly want to share it with everyone else. Aren't we smart?

Many outlets exist for such dinner-party conversation material: the op-ed page, public radio, alternative weeklies. But perhaps the most widely recognized in our culture is The New Yorker, that bastion of witty, erudite reporting


and opinion. Generation after generation of young people has taken that intimidating step into intellectual adulthood by subscribing to the magazine, hoping to test their smarts and sophistication against this tony publication's. (Or, hell, maybe we just want to convince other people that we're all cultured and stuff.)

Malcolm Gladwell appeals to this demographic better than just about any other writer I can name. Almost every piece he's contributed to the magazine falls under the broad category of "Well now, isn't that interesting?" reporting. Without fail, he pinpoints an intriguing aspect of daily life, inverting it slightly or digging into it deeper than the layman would, thereby teaching us something new about that common experience and -- by extension -- the world at large.

Gladwell reached his cultural zenith with The Tipping Point, a book-long investigation into "how little things can make a big difference." This bestseller represented one variation on the sort of nonfiction phenomenon we get every year. Alongside the Diet Breakthroughs, Quickie Autobiographies and Gossipy Biographies, The Tipping Point was its year's Eats, Shoots & Leaves: the Accessible "Smart" Book for the Masses.

Not there's anything disreputable about an intelligent book becoming successful; it's a shame it doesn't happen more often. But The Tipping Point validated Gladwell's style of journalism, which ultimately isn't nearly as insightful as it pretends to be. His new book, Blink, is more of the same.

As a subscriber to The New Yorker for several years, I've come across Gladwell's pieces on occasion, but it wasn't until I did a little background checking for Blink that I realized just how many of his articles I'd read … and how every one of them fizzled about halfway through. To put it bluntly, Gladwell offers a sharper variation on the precious, slice-of-life segments NPR simply adores. He does Human Interest with a vengeance …

Everyone knows that our faces express internal emotions -- but did you ever wonder exactly how they do it? Well, wonder no longer, because Gladwell's here to tell you.

Ever wondered how advertisers know what things kids find cool? Well, wonder no longer, because Gladwell talked to "coolhunters" -- and, lordy, is it revealing.

I have to commend the man on hooking me more times than any other New Yorker writer; he has a gift for sensing the provocative angle in basic human existence. Again and again, I would be intrigued by the questions his pieces would raise -- Does our entire destiny and development get determined by our first three years of life? Why are some athletes able to perform in the clutch while others choke? -- but every time I felt myself dozing off as the initial hook gave way to a rather obvious, trite "lesson" that left me hungering for something more substantial. He's that person at the party who gets the conversation going, but then doesn't have much meaningful to contribute afterward.

Not surprisingly, Blink reads like the longest New Yorker piece ever -- complete with an introduction, conclusion, notes, acknowledgments and an index. Subtitled The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, the book probes the mystery of people's snap decisions and hunches. Why is it that brilliant thinkers make mistakes in judgment that regular folks, without any special training, don't? Why does one brand of soup on the grocery store shelf somehow look tastier to us than another brand -- even though we've never tried either? How can we train ourselves to know within a few seconds whether or not any married couple we meet will stay together? Worthy questions that tap into our universal desire to understand our world on a deeper level. But once Gladwell provides the answers, there's no there there. I doubt this is the desired effect, but Blink is so fundamentally simplistic in its points that you quickly feel smarter than the author. Hey, Malcolm, I already know all this … and I didn't have to spend a year researching and interviewing to get there.

Demonstrating his ability to make scientific discussions palatable, Gladwell utilizes his standard technique of using engaging, real-life mysteries as a narrative structure to introduce his discoveries. In Blink, we relive the failure of New Coke, the against-the-odds victory of the makers of the Aeron chair and the tragic shooting of Amadou Diallo. The man can write -- the sentences glide effortlessly one after another -- and his storytelling holds your interest. But repeatedly we catch onto the underlying moral of his tales long before he presents his big revelations. Anyone who works in the creative world does not need to be told that new work deemed too radical or "weird" at first might end up becoming revolutionary and successful; Peter Biskind has fashioned a lucrative career chronicling the truism that first impressions in art often can't be trusted. If you follow sports or history, you will not be amazed that, in war games, a poorly equipped team can vanquish a stronger foe by relying on instinct and quick thinking. (Has Malcolm Gladwell ever seen Hoosiers or Miracle, which are filled with such clichés?) What else do we learn? Assumptions about different races run deep into our subconscious, the emotions on our face tell more than even we realize, advertisers can manipulate us with certain images and designs -- yes, yes, yes, we know.

As opposed to the muckraking documentaries of recent years, Blink settles for surface revelations without really upending our preconceptions. (For all its shoddy reporting, even Fahrenheit 9/11 has more insight into how being photogenic will take you further in life than brains, which strikes Gladwell as newsworthy.) And, what's worse, Gladwell doesn't delve into the darker implications of his findings.

Blink points out that our ability to "thin-slice" -- "the ability of our unconscious to find patterns in situations and behavior based on very narrow slices of experience" -- can be both a blessing and a curse. We learn how one group of art experts in the early '80s was convinced that a certain statue was an authentic ancient treasure after months of close study -- only to be humiliated when outside consultants could instantly tell it was a fake just by looking at it. Conversely, the officers who shot Diallo didn't think before shooting; if they had studied the situation, the killing might have been averted. But Gladwell doesn't seem to grasp how potentially terrifying this juxtaposition is. Whether you're a film critic trying to sort out your feelings about The Brown Bunny or you're a doctor trying to decide if your patient in the ER is actually having a heart attack, we rely on a combination of experience and instinct every day. What do we do with the knowledge that neither one is foolproof? How can we ever trust our judgment when our subconscious (or, "The Locked Door") sometimes guides us in the wrong direction?

Don't ask Blink, because you'll only get platitudes. To be better people, we just need to "control the environment" in which our split-second decisions and impressions are made. But this seems entirely too touchy-feely; it's the sort of reassuring final analysis that gets your book good placement in the "self help" section of your local Borders. Conveniently, his examples of thin-slice's success and failure all back up his argument, but they don't account for all the untold anomalies that complicate life. Sometimes, we make mistakes because, well, we're humans and the world is a complicated place. Gladwell's glib findings amount to the same hindsight commentary that political observers spout after an election or sports writers incorporate after the championship game: the result proved that this factor is greater than that one. Aren't we smart?

The truth is, we can't "control the environment" -- life is unpredictable, and it's foolish to think otherwise. Blink works best as a guidebook, a meditation on living, but like a lot of self-improvement mumbo-jumbo, it's short on life-changing epiphanies. Mildly interesting, with delusions of grander insights. I am sure it will make for lively dinner-party conversation.


Believe the Hype rating: 3 out of 10.
(10 being completely worth it, 1 being full of hot air)


Want more?


Tim Grierson is the editor of The Simon.